Stubbs’ Gimcrack on Newmarket Heath

Few racehorses have been as masterfully painted in their winning moment as ‘Gimcrack’. Here, Stubbs paints this fabled grandson of the Godolphin Arabian in front of a Newmarket ‘rubbing house’, or race-day stable, flanks heaving, veins popping, sweat drenched, held by his trainer, with a stable boy putting down straw for him to urinate on.

On the right, we see him again, about 10 minutes earlier, dashing past the winner’s post in front of the stadium and winning the race by lengths.

Stubbs hints the righthand side of the picture with its altered time zone (the race) is a dream, a vision or memory, because the shutters to the grandstand (the strangely boxy brick structure behind the white fence in the background) are closed and the spectators are gone.

As a sidenote – and to the modern eye – the jockeys’ long stirrups look odd, but the ‘monkey crouch’, invented by Todd Sloan, was still another century away.

Stubbs makes reference to both the glory and the cruelty of racing. Gimcrack has run the race of his life; his connections, however, seem too busy ‘playing their parts’ to notice; the jockey, John Pratt, stares dreamily at the horse, re-running the race in his mind; the trainer seems to be furtively looking at the stable boy’s bottom; the owner, Lord Bolingbroke, though out of frame, is not out of mind, because it’s his viewing position, right at the centre of it all, that we are asked to take up.

In a time when horses were considered dumb and feeling-less servants, very far down the scale from humans, unusually, Stubbs asks us to see Gimcrack as an individual, an athlete with a sense of his own greatness, and his ‘world’ is balanced both psychologically and pictorially by the humans around him.

Happily, he lived out a good life in horse terms, winning 21 races out of 36 before being retired to stud, becoming one of the most famous sires in the Thoroughbred studbook. To this day, an annual race in his honour is held in the North of England.

Image Caption:

George Stubbs, Gimcrack on Newmarket Heath with a trainer, a jockey and a stable lad, 1765.